9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Working Channels: A Practical Guide to Improved Radio Communications

How often do you hear radio traffic which you would categorize as something less than profesional? How many times have you had to repeat a message two, three, four times? Or more? When was the last time you had training on how to talk on the radio? How many times have you been instructed on prioritizing messages, or communication methods? Are communications problems routinely critiqued as a part of a Post-Incident Analysis Program? Do you employ a method to learn from mistakes?

Despite all of the new technology available to emergency responders, communications problems remain. The bottom line is: Better performance cannot be expected until we properly train and equip personnel, implement good policies and maintain accountability.

Equipment Considerations

How many communications workers and police officers have become accustomed to listening to distorted-sounding dispatch information over speakers with sound quality that can barely be understood even by seasoned veterans?

A thorough assessment of options, weighing costs, function, and specific known factors, prior to purchasing communications equipment will minimize complications later. There is no substitute for first hand research. Time spent visiting various jurisdictions to observe what they are using will be well worth the effort. Find out what they like and don't like about their equipment.

Training the Users

Pros and cons can be identified with whatever verbal format is used by an agency; the most important consideration is not which one is used, but that everyone uses the same method. Inconsistency in this area leads to problems. Whatever format you use, practice it. Dispatchers need to be trained in the same format as field personnel and must practice it regularly. Everyone has to use the same communications model, and be held accountable for it in order to realize successful communications.

When a message is transmitted, it is the receiver's responsibility to let the sender know their message was understood. This should be done, particularly when emergency situations dictate, by a brief summary statement.

The sender is also responsible to ensure that his/her communication reached its expected mark.

The person initiating communications, particularly in a high pressure situation, can easily lose track of their messages if they are inundated with radio traffic. If the communicator does not remain attentive, important information can be lost. Dropped or lost messages, those not received and acknowledged by the intended receiver can lead to guess work, confusion, freelancing and a compromise in personnel safety.

Various techniques are effective for keeping track of radio traffic. Here are a few suggestions:
  • Adequate staffing for volume of communications. There never seems to be enough personnel when "the big one" hits, but running too lean on staffing is a risky proposition. Use an aide or assistant to work one or two radio frequencies under the direction of an incident commander.
  • The use of playback is available on some systems for repeating certain transmissions, this can be a useful tool in reducing unnecessary radio air time.
  • Advising senders to "stand by" with non-time-critical messages can buy valuable time in some cases.

Prioritization of communications and selecting the most appropriate method for transmitting information is another aspect that can take years of experience to learn. Today's emergency responders have cellular phones, fax machines, mobile data terminals and alpha numeric pagers at their disposal in addition to mobile and portable radios.

Plain Communication

Proper enunciation is also a vital element in making communications work. The terms "available" and "unavailable" can sound deceptively alike via radio, therefore it is imperative that the sender enunciate precisely.

Microphone Etiquette

We don't often take the time to recognize the differences in microphones, but there are differences. Directional mikes are intended to minimize extraneous outside noise. If the person transmitting is looking in another direction or holding the microphone too far away, the message likely will be ineffective. Microphones keyed when the sender begins the message will usually cut off a portion of the message. These types of issues, basic as they are, need to be reviewed. After a working familiarity is gained with equipment, communications will show advancement.


Effective radio communications is essential to providers of emergency services. Failure of communications causes an unacceptable level of risk to public and personnel safety. If problems exist with systems, equipment, policies or personnel that compromise our service delivery, they must be corrected. Every person involved in emergency communications provides one link in the chain, and ever link must be intact for optimal effectiveness. Agencies must provide high quality training and equipment for the users. And, in the final analysis, each and every person has a responsibility to identify weaknesses and attempt to correct deficiencies. Our ultimate goal, of course being to implement improvements that will benefit emergency responders, dispatcher and our customers, the public.

Improved Communications

Plan ahead, then transmit. Know what you want to say before you say it. Attempt to be concise and specific, while being as brief as possible. Some messages can wait until later instead of being transmitted in the heat of battle when air time is at a premium.

Take personal responsibility. Make it a matter of professional pride to be a responsible communicator. Follow through on your messages to be certain they are received and understood.

Critique your performance. Incident tapes can be invaluable as a training tool. Listening to them with a critical ear will usually lead to improved radio communications.

Insist upon a clear message. If you don't understand an order or a message, ask the sender to repeat or rephrase it. If you still don't understand, make it known you do not understand - a life may depend on it.

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